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Standing On The Dragon’s Backbone, Looking Down

Spectacular, no? This view is all yours, should you feel like travelling twenty-two hours by slow train from Shanghai to Guilin, followed by two hours on a bumpy road (marred by occasional landslides) from Guilin to the village of Dazhai, and then finally hauling your travel-weary body uphill on foot for the last two hours to the top of the Dragon’s Backbone. There, as mountain breezes cool your face, the contoured layers of the very spine of the great green scaled beast spread out below to reward you.

I have visited the rice terraces of the Dragon’s Backbone (Longji titian) before, and couldn’t wait to get back there on this visit. Reputed to be over one thousand years old, the rice farming methods of the local Yao people have changed little. Yao villages are dotted throughout Longji, wooden huts cantilevered out over the steepest hills and clustered along the valley streams. The mountain paths between the villages lead the walker to incredible views over rows and rows of vivid green rice terraces.

The sound of water is everywhere, fresh cold mountain springs feeding the terraces from top to bottom, a system of bamboo pipes and channels diverting the water into and out of each terrace to keep the feet of the rice constantly wet.

In contrast to the orderly tamed rows of rice plants, the hillsides that are too steep for rice cultivation run completely wild with every kind of climbing, creeping tropical foliage, swathes of bamboo, exuberant ferns, exotic flowers, butterflies the size of small birds, and millions of frogs. It feels like wildness will cover the mountains in a smothering carpet of creeping green tendrils the moment my back is turned. The greenery presses in on the path from both sides, narrowing the broad stone stairs as I climb up and up to the mountain’s peak.

And there at last, after a day and a half of travelling, I’ve reached as high as I can go, and I can sit down and enjoy the view.

To reach Dazhai village and Dragon’s Backbone:

A minibus departs from Guilin train station every day for Dazhai village (two and a half hours)
Departs at 8am, 9.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

From Dazhai, the bus departs at 9am (direct to Yangshuo), 11.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

40 yuan per person.

Phone +86 18977392805 for information.

Guilin: Paradise on Earth

Mention that you’re planning a trip to Guilin to Chinese friends and their eyes stare nostalgically into the distance. ‘I’ve always wanted to see Guilin’ they say, with mystical reverence, a hint of wistfulness in their voices.

What exactly is it about Guilin, in southern China, that enchants so many Chinese people? I’m about to embark on my second trip there, exactly a year after my first, so I feel I have some small inkling of the attraction.

For a start, there’s the unsurpassed natural landscape, a jade green panorama of vertiginously steep limestone hills, to which cling deep and dense foliage, and between them a broad ribbon of rice fields, lotus ponds, and emerald rivers. The air hangs heavy and humid, dense with cicadas, frogs and crickets, and the smell of fresh, lush nature is everywhere. The people, short and deeply tanned, seem to be perpetually relaxed and in search of a good time.

In addition to my own observations I’ve been asking every Chinese person I know why they love Guilin:

‘I can feel total freedom there’

‘I love to ride my bicycle, and raft down the river, and just have a fun time with my friends.’

‘Did you know that in Yangshuo (near Guilin) there are more foreigners than Chinese people? It’s so cosmopolitan. That’s why I go there for two weeks every year.’

‘It’s my heart’s desire to see Guilin. I heard it is the most beautiful place in all China!’

Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ve come to accept that Guilin, and its backpacker friendly neighbor, Yangshuo, represent the kind of freedom so many young Chinese crave – freedom from work, freedom from family pressures, freedom from study. Guilin and Yangshuo are completely geared for fun and relaxation with bamboo rafting, bike riding, caving and rock-climbing among the many activities on offer. This, combined with a sub-tropical climate, lush surroundings, and scores of foreigners mean that a Chinese tourist can really come here and let their hair down. It’s a potent combination.

I’m spending all of this week in and around Guilin, and I’ll (try!) and post every day to show you just what an incredibly lovely place it is.  I’ll be visiting the fabled Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces (Longji titian) northwest of Guilin, the Yao villages of Dazhai and Tiantou, the hip hangout of Yangshuo, and the tiny market villages along the Li and Yulong Rivers.
Fancy a trip to southern China’s most beautiful places? Come along!